Childrens' Learning

Childrens' Learning

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Linguistics is the scientific study of language. It endeavours to answer the question – what is language and how is it represented in the mind? Language is a system of symbols and rules; exclusive in its form to human beings that enables us to communicate. Symbols are things that stand for other things: words, either written or spoken, are symbols and the rules specify how words are ordered to form sentences. Language symbols are arbitrary, with no necessary connection between the symbol, be it word or gesture, and the object or idea to which it refers. For example, if one wanted to construct a new word for ‘tree’, they could use almost any legitimate combination of sounds that are not already being used for other purposes. However, symbols must be used systematically for effective communication to occur. The arbitrary symbol system must be shared; for communication to take place at least two people must have access to the system.

There are a number of dimensions to language acquisition and development and each stage occurs chronologically. These are as follows:
·     Phonology – study of the sound patterns of language. It is concerned with how sounds or ‘phonemes’ are organised and examines what happens to speech sounds when they are combined to form words and how these sounds interact with each other. It endeavours to explain what these phonological processes are in terms of formal rules.
·     Semantics – is our knowledge of word meanings and how we acquire vocabulary. The semantic component is made up of morphemes, the smallest units of meaning that may be combined with each other to make up words. For example, the word ‘paper’ and ‘s’ are two morphemes that make up the word ‘papers’.

·     Syntax – syntax is the study of sentence structure. It attempts to describe what is grammatical in a particular language in terms of rules. These rules detail an underlying structure and a transformational process. The underlying structure for English, for example, would have a subject-verb-object sentence order (‘James kicked the football’) and the transformational process would allow an alteration of the word order, which could produce something like ‘the football was kicked by James.’ The syntactic component consists of the rules that enable us to combine morphemes into sentences. As soon as a child uses two morphemes together as in ‘more juice’, he or she is using a syntactic rule about how morphemes are combined to convey meaning.

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Syntactic rules become increasingly complex as a child develops. They progress to combine words with suffixes or inflections and eventually create questions, statements, commands etc. He or she will also learn to combine two ideas into one complex sentence. For example, ‘I’ll share my juice if you share your crisps.’
·     Pragmatics – an understanding that words can be used to different effect, for example, to be humorous or sarcastic. Pragmatics deals with rules of language use and these rules form part of our communicative competence. In other words, our ability to speak appropriately in different situations, for example, in a conversational way at home or in a more formal way at a job interview. Learning pragmatic rules is as important as learning the rules of other components of language as people are perceived and judged based on both what they say and how and when they say it.

One of the most important characteristics of human language is that it can refer to objects, events and possibilities that are not physically present and it allows us to speak of the past and to learn from it, to imagine the future and to predict what may lie ahead. Language can be spoken, signed (using sign language) or written down.

Our system of language and the process of communication are closely linked. Communication can be described as any act by which one person gives to or receives from another person information about that person’s needs, desires, perceptions, knowledge or affective states. Communication may be intentional or unintentional, may involve conventional or unconventional signals, may take linguistic or non-linguistic forms and may occur through spoken or other modes.

Overall, it is important to recognise that not all communication is language (facial expression and gestures such as pointing); and not all language is communication (as when one sings the lyrics of a song purely to experience the pleasure of the sounds.)


There are regularly observed stages of language acquisition, from random baby babble through to the advanced syntax used by an adult. The significant stages in the language development of typical children, sorted by age group, is presented in the following table:

Age of Child     Typical Language Development
0 to 4 Months     ·     Limited to reflexive crying·     Production of vegetative sounds·     May start producing cooing or laughing sounds, though they may be hard to recognise so early on
4 to 6 Months     ·     A period of babbling in which they are practising the sounds, intonations and rhythms of language·     Characterised by indiscriminate utterance of speech sounds·     Learn to replicate sounds they hear·     Learn to modulate their voices to yell and whisper·     Babble in reaction to stimuli ·     Manipulate others by expressing needs and wants
6 to 12 Months     ·     Vocalisation with intonation (sounding more like adult patterns)·     Babbling becomes more melodic·     At first the sounds will be mainly drawn out vowel sounds. Soon after they will add consonant sounds and repetitive sounds, e.g. “da” and “dada”·     Combine sounds with gestures·     Show preferences to speech patterns that are typical of their own language (learning the phonology of his/her particular language)·     Becoming desensitised to sound differences in other languages that don’t exist in the language they are exposed to·     Show preference to their own name over other names·     Learn to recognise words and begin to understand their meaning·     Vocabulary of 50 or more words by the end of a child’s first year.

Age of Child     Typical Language Development
12 to 18 Months     ·     Uses one or more words with meaning (this may be a fragment of a word)·     Understands simple instruction, especially if vocal or physical cues are given·     Practices inflection·     A single word can represent an entire thought; e.g. “boo” may mean “read me a book”. This is called holophrase·     Is aware of the social value of speech·     Has a spoken vocabulary of approximately 5 to 20 words·     Vocabulary made up chiefly of nouns·     Some echolia (repeating a word or phrase over and over)·     Much jargon with emotional content
18 to 24 Months     ·     Spoken vocabulary catches up (can add as many as several new words a day)·     Learn words by imitating·     ‘Motherese’ is very effective in teaching new words·     Can name a number of objects common to his/her surroundings·     Able to use at least two prepositions·     Combines words into short sentences·     Approximately two thirds of what a child says in intelligible·     Vocabulary of approximately 150 to 300 words·     Rhythm and fluency poor·     Volume and pitch of voice not well controlled·     Can use two pronouns correctly
2 to 3 Years     ·     Begin to string two content words together to indicate location, e.g. “mummy gone” – telegraphic speech·     Use pronouns ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘me’ correctly·     Use some plurals and past tense·     Know at least three prepositions·     Knows chief parts of the body·     Handles three word sentences easily (multi word sentences)·     Has vocabulary of 900 to 1000 words·     90% of what a child says in intelligible·     Verbs begin to predominate·     Understands most simple questions·     Able to reason out such questions as “what must you do when you are hungry?”·     Should be able to give his/her sex, name, age
Age of Child     Typical Language Development
3 to 4 Years     ·     Knows names of familiar animals·     Can use at least four prepositions or can demonstrate his/her understanding of their meaning when given commands·     Names common objects in picture books or magazines·     Knows one or more colours·     Can repeat four digits·     Can repeat words of four syllables·     Demonstrates an understanding of the words ‘over’ and ‘under’·     Has most vowels and the consonants p, b, m, w and n well established·     Often indulges in make believe·     Extensive verbalisation as he/she carries out activities·     Readily follows simple commands·     Much repetition of words, phrases, syllables and sounds
4 to 5 Years     ·     Can use many descriptive words spontaneously·     Knows common opposites·     Has number concepts of 4 or more·     Speech is completely intelligible·     Have all vowels and consonants·     Repeat sentences as long as nine words·     Define common objects in terms of use·     Follow three commands given without interruptions·     Knows his/her age·     Understands simple time concepts – today, tomorrow, yesterday, earlier etc.·     Using fairly long sentences·     Speech should be grammatically correct
6 Years     ·     Speech should be completely intelligible and socially useful·     Should be able to tell a connected story about a picture, seeing relationships between objects and happenings
7 Years     ·     Can handle opposite analogies easily e.g. girl-boy, man-woman, short-long·     Understands such terms as alike, different, beginning, end·     Able to do simple reading and can write many words

Age of Child     Typical Language Development
8 Years     ·     Can relate involved accounts of events·     Can use complex and compound sentences easily·     Few lapses in grammatical constrictions – tense, pronouns, plurals·     All speech sounds should be established·     Reading with considerable ease·     Can write simple compositions·     Control of rate, pitch and volume well established·     Can carry out conversation at an adult level·     Can follow fairly complex directions with little repetition·     Has developed time and number concepts


Learning theory has its philosophical roots in the work of the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), who advanced the view that infants are born with everything to learn. The person that they become is the direct result of the learning that they have done and nothing else. Behaviourist psychologists, who are the scientific descendants of John Locke, favour this nurture theory and consider that language is a behaviour to be learnt just like other behaviours.

Skinner’s explanation of language acquisition is a popular example of the nurturist ideas. Language development, according to Skinner, is due to a learning process involving the shaping of grammar into a correct form. Sounds made by infants are ‘shaped’ until the sounds become words. If the children imitate adult words and receive appropriate positive reinforcement, then the words should be retained by the child and be used again in the right circumstances. Reinforcement is an important concept and past experiences of verbal behaviour are important in determining whether they will be used again. Skinner used the phrase ‘verbal operant conditioning’ whereby a verbal response that occurs in a given situation and is followed by a reinforcer becomes more likely to occur again in the same situation. He claims that acquisition of language is strongly influenced by the environment and places particular emphasis on imitation behaviours.

Behaviourists Wulbert (1975) and Rheingold (1959) provided further evidence to support Skinner’s view of operant conditioning, shaping, reinforcement and imitation. Wulbert et al drew comparisons between children with speech delay and children with a normal rate of language development. Their findings revealed that mothers of slow developing children were less responsive, both verbally and emotionally, which suggests that environmental influences do indeed effect language development.

Experiments conducted by Rheingold further concluded that infants as young as three years olds can be influenced by reinforcement.

I believe that the reinforcement theory, which suggests that children learn to speak properly by being corrected and taught by their caregivers (positively reinforced for corrections and negatively reinforced for errors), is effective to a certain extent in the progression and refinement of language learning. Children that grow up in a household with highly educated parents tend to have a more sophisticated vocabulary that those who are raised in less privileged families. However, it fails to explain how basic grammar and vocabulary are still learnt by children who have little or no correct reinforcement.

Imitation of adult speech, in my opinion, also plays a vital role in children’s language development. Children learn the phonology of the language exposed to them and adopt a similar accent to that of their parents or carers. This suggests that imitation does indeed accelerate language acquisition. Children also imitate speech verbalised by their peers and will often extend their vocabulary and come home saying new words (often ‘naughty’ or swear words) that they have overheard in school or in the playground.

The main criticism of the nurture theory in relation to language development is that very young children do not repeat language exactly the same way that they hear it. Often the child is incapable of precisely imitating adult speech. They may imitate words but are unable to produce entire sentences beyond their own grammatical ability. The theory is also problematic because most adults only correct the most obvious mistakes and often not until the child is older. In fact, adults do not always use proper grammar either yet the child learns the rules anyway. Conversely, no matter how hard the caregiver tries, children only learn rules in specific stages and will not learn new ones until they are ready.

Furthermore, children often make grammatical mistakes that they could not possibly have heard. For example, ‘cookies are gooder than bread’, ‘John taked the toy’, ‘we goed to the shops’ etc. and the learning theory cannot account for the speed and accuracy of language acquisition.

The nurture theory of language development is particularly relevant in a childcare setting. Childcare workers should ensure that the nursery environment is conducive to language acquisition by providing various activities to assist in the development of language. For example, by reading appropriate books at story time, encouraging children to look at and explore books and stories for themselves, by singing songs and encouraging children to participate and by providing computer based activities that concentrate on promoting language development. My daughter’s nursery, for example, often provides ‘leap pads’ appropriate to the children’s age and stage of development and these encourage them to listen to and repeat the sounds and words that they hear.

According to the learning theory, the adult role in promoting language development is to positively reinforce correct grammar, responding both verbally and emotionally, and to be enthusiastic about their learning in order to encourage motivation. It is important that the adult provides regular praise and encouragement to boost a child self esteem. This will, in turn, help to accelerate language acquisition. In order to fully promote language development, it is important that the adult provides positive reinforcement to the child from birth, encouraging him/her to progress from initial sounds and first words.

An example of the nurture theory from my own personal experience is based on various words and sayings that are unique to my family and that have been passed down through generations. Words such as ‘bafta’ (meaning bath), ‘peepy joes’ (meaning sleeping) and ‘chilly bon bon’ (meaning to be cold) were initially used (we think) by my granny and have been used by my parents, by my sisters and myself and now by my daughter. This supports the learning theory and suggests that imitation and environmental factors have a definite influence on language acquisition.


The manner in which a child acquires language is a matter long debated by linguists and child psychologists alike. The father of most nativist theories of language acquisition is Noam Chomsky (1928-), who brought greater attention to the innate capacity of children for learning language, which had widely been considered a purely cultural phenomenon based on imitation. Nativist linguistic theories hold that children learn through their natural ability to organise the laws of language. Children are born with an innate capacity for learning human language and are destined to speak. Children discover the grammar of their language based on their own inborn grammar. Certain aspects of language structure, according to nativists, seem to be preordained by the cognitive structure of the human mind. This accounts for certain very basic universal features of language structure. For example, every language has nouns and verbs, consonants and vowels. It is assumed that children are pre-programmed to acquire such things.

Noam Chomsky proposed that children are born with a genetic mechanism for the acquisition of language, which he called a ‘Language Acquisition Device’ (LAD). He claimed that the LAD was wired with language universals and equipped with a mechanism that allowed children to make complex guesses about what they hear around them. In other words, they are born with the major principles of language in place but with many parameters to set. According to the nativist theory, when a young child is exposed to a language, their LAD makes it possible for them to set the parameters and deduce the grammatical principles, because the principles are innate. Chomsky further distinguishes between the ‘deep structure’ and the ‘surface structure’ of language. Deep structure refers to the meaning of a sentence and surface structure refers to the grammatical form that the sentence takes.

For example, the following sentences: ‘John kicked the football’ and ‘the football was kicked by John’, both have the same meaning (deep structure) but differ in their grammatical form (surface structure). According to Chomsky, our innate LAD allows us to learn grammar by changing surface structure into deep structure. He also believes that all languages are universal at the deep level and differ only at the surface structure.

Chomsky believed that the behaviourist approach could not fully explain the language phenomenon and he produced a devastating critique of the behaviourist position, which included the claim that much of a child’s speech is composed of original constructions and could not, therefore, have been copied from an adult (for example, ‘we wented to the beach’). The nature theory explains why all children exposed to language, regardless of environmental factors and differences in intelligence are able to acquire very complex grammar at an early age. Something innate to the child – the LAD – allows for such rapid and successful language acquisition by children. Also, humans are biologically equipped for acquiring language; they have all the necessary vocal equipment and identified language areas in the brain. This evidence supports the nativist view of language acquisition.

However, the nativist theory in relation to language development is difficult to test and Chomsky has compromised his theory somewhat to allow for other factors, such as environment and reinforcement, to have some influence in language learning. The problem with the theory of innateness is not in deciding whether the theory is correct, since the ability to learn language is certainly innate, but rather in identifying just what the mysterious LAD actually is. There is no formal account of what it is, how it works or of the neural mechanisms involved, therefore, in my opinion, this theory is extremely vague.

The nativist theory views the child as a passive learner who does not actively participate and construct his/her own learning. The adult role, therefore, is not important in assisting the advancement of language development as children are pre-programmed to acquire language and will reach certain linguistic milestones when they are biologically ready to do so. This theory is not relevant to a childcare setting, as the nursery environment will have no effect on a child’s ability to acquire language.


Piaget’s position was between the behaviourist view that language is learned by reinforcement and the rationalist view of researchers such as Chomsky, who argued for an innate language acquisition component. According to Piaget, language is a cognitive and perceptual process that follows the stages of development. He linked language acquisition to a child’s maturation; to use linguistic structures they must understand the concept. For example, a child cannot use comparison of size if he/she does not understand the concept. Piaget claimed that adult language has been socialised whereas children’s language is egocentric. Piaget distinguished between three types of egocentric speech:
1.     Echolalia - repetition of their own or others utterances
2.     Monologue - talking to themselves, apparently speaking their thoughts aloud
3.     Collective Monologue – two or more children appear to be engaged in conversation, taking turns, speaking appropriately, but careful listening produces the observation that each is actually just producing monologues. There is no exchange of meaning evident.

Piaget’s central interest was that of children’s cognitive development, which he believed to be an indispensable precondition for language acquisition. He theorised that language is simply one of children’s ways of reflecting their thought processes and believed that language does not contribute to the development of thinking. Cognitive development, he argued, preceded that of language.

He saw language as essentially a development of the child’s ability to manipulate symbols (also manifested in such activities as symbolic play), which emerges towards the end of the sensorimotor period of development. According to Piaget, children construct language through a combination of ‘schemas’ (biologically given intelligence) and interaction with other people (e.g. parents, carers).

As schemas develop and become more complex in the brain, language and vocabulary progress in order for the child to handle the new schemas.

Overall, Piaget argued that language basically represents a skill of symbolic representation gradually acquired through stages of cognitive development. His view is in contrast to Chomsky’s theory about universal grammar; that a general mechanism in the brain (acquired genetically) accounts for humans’ ability to acquire language, which he saw as being far too complex and distinctive to be acquired simply through experience and general cognitive processes. (Mitchell & Myles, 2001, p17)

Clearly there is some link between cognitive development and language acquisition and Piaget’s theory helps to explain the order in which certain aspects of language are acquired. However, his theory does not explain why language emerges in the first instance. For example, apes also develop cognitively in much the same way as young children in their first few years of life, but language acquisition does not follow naturally from their development.

The application of Piaget’s theory in a childcare setting entails providing a rich environment for the learning child to explore. Piaget favoured whole, authentic, applicable learning, therefore, activities like operating a home corner ‘shop’ or ‘post office’ would be examples of relating to real world situations and encouraging symbolic representation.

Piaget viewed the child as an active participant in his/her own learning, therefore, the adult should provide a wide range of appropriate resources and hands on experiences to stimulate and encourage symbolic play. These should be based on a child’s own interests and derived from observations. The adult must be skilled in their approach and sensitive to the amount of intervention required. He/she should often take a back seat and only intervene when deemed appropriate.

The adult must also support a child’s language development by providing appropriate vocabulary to accompany the tasks and activities that the children are engaging in, to assist in their understanding at a deeper level (e.g. mathematical language).

When my daughter was less than a year old she became extremely attached to a security blanket that had been given to her from birth. She enjoyed sniffing the corners of the blanket while at the same time, sucking two fingers on her left hand. She would suck her fingers and point to her nose to communicate to me that she wanted her blanket. This suggests that a schema of her blanket had already been created in her mind; however, she did not yet have the appropriate language to express her need verbally. This example supports Piaget’s theory that cognitive development and thought precedes language development. Also, children express the need for cuddles, food, to be picked up etc. long before they can say it in words, which further supports his view.


Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner adopt a similar theoretical approach to language acquisition and contend that language has a huge influence on our thought processes and that language and cognitive development are inter-dependent. This view is in direct contrast to Piaget’s belief that thought and cognitive developments precede language acquisition.

Vygotsky was a psychologist but his studies on conscious human behaviour led him to investigate the role that language plays in child development. Vygotsky’s point of view is simply that social interaction plays an important role in the learning process. He places emphasis on the role of ‘shared language’ in the development of thought and language. The term ‘shared language’ refers to social interaction and can be best elucidated through his notion of ‘zone of proximal development’.

According to Vygotsky (1962), two developmental levels determine the learning process: egocentricity and interaction. He observed what children do on their own and what they are capable of while working alongside others. They mostly choose to remain silent or speak less on their own (less egocentric speech), however, they prefer to speak to other children when they play games with them (more egocentric speech). The difference between these two types of developmental forms has been called the ‘zone of proximal development.’

To conclude, Vygotsky contends that language is the key to all development and words play a central part, not only in the development of thought, but also in the growth of cognition as a whole. As a result, child language development, thus acquisition, can be viewed as the result of social interaction.

The adult role, according to Vygotsky’s theory, is to support and extend learning through shared experiences and interaction with the child. By encouraging the child to talk about and discuss the activities in which they are participating, it will assist them in moving from concrete to abstract thought. The adult should ask the child questions to jointly construct meaning and to ensure that the child had developed a certain level of understanding.

The psychologist Jerome Bruner holds that while there may well be, as Chomsky suggests, a LAD, there must also be a Language Acquisition Support System, or LASS. He is referring to the family and entourage of the child. He emphasised the importance of pre-verbal exchanges between mother and baby for the laying down of a foundation for later language development. This infant-directed speech or ‘motherese’ is characterised by high-pitched, simple, redundant speech and involves joint attention, eye contact, taking turns, proto-conversations, playing with sounds, peek a boo etc. The LASS provided by a parent or carer supports or ‘scaffolds’ a child’s entry into language. It is important that parents/carers continue to interact with the child as he/she grows in order for language acquisition to be developed to its full potential. Parent-child language interaction is characterised by:
·     Recasting – rephrasing what a child says, often as a question
·     Echoing – repeating what a child says
·     Expanding – restating what a child has said in a more advanced way
·     Labelling – naming objects

Bruner closely observed the way in which a child interacts with the adults around him/her and found that the adults are constantly providing opportunities for him/her to acquire his/her mother tongue. Parents/carers provide ritualised scenarios, for example, the ceremony of having a bath, eating a meal, getting dressed etc. in which the phases of interaction are rapidly recognised and predicted by the infant.

It is within such clear contexts that the child first becomes aware of the way in which language is used. Gradually the child moves from a passive position to an active one, taking over the movements of the caregiver, and eventually the language as well.

According to Bruner’s theory, language-skilled adults must structure and support or ‘scaffold’ the child’s language learning environment. Parents/carers must ensure that pre-verbal exchanges or proto-conversations (conversations with babies before speech) take place to establish a foundation for future language development. Parent-child interaction should be a continual process as the child develops and the adult must provide routine scenarios (as described above) in order for the child to predict what interaction will take place and in time acquire the appropriate language. In both Vygotsky and Bruner’s theory, the adult must be a positive role model and use language appropriately in order to have a positive influence on the child.

In Bruner’s and Vygotsky’s version of language acquisition, the child is still pre-programmed to learn, but the social conditions become more important. The child is still an active participant; is essentially creative in her approach to language acquisition, but the role of the parents and other carers is also seen to be significantly influential.

To apply Vygotsky’s theory to an early years setting the adult must regularly interact with the child and encourage him/her to develop relationships with peers in order for egocentric speech to take place. In a childcare setting the adult will ask the child various questions regarding the task that they are engaged in to ensure that the child had developed an understanding. Nursery staff will be consistent in their approach and share personal experiences to assist the child in constructing meaning of language.

Bruner’s theory, based on his LASS, can also be applied to a childcare setting. By recasting, echoing, expanding and labelling (as previously mentioned), nursery staff will promote language acquisition. Furthermore, by providing appropriate resources and experiences in routine scenarios (e.g. daily story time, snack time, outside playtime etc.) children will be able to predict their day at nursery and acquire the appropriate language over time to accompany the activities.

An example of Vygotsky’s theory from my own personal experience is evident when comparing the level of my daughter’s speech when at home and when on holiday visiting my parents. On an average day at home, more often than not, it is just my daughter and I that are in our house. When I am occupied, often with housework, my daughter amuses herself playing with her favourite toys. She often chooses to remain silent or talk less than she would in other circumstances (less egocentric speech). In contrast, however, while on holiday visiting her Granny and Granddad, she is surrounded by others and is continually interacting with both family and other children who live nearby. This encourages more egocentric speech and thus language acquisition. According to Vygotsky, the difference between these two circumstances is called the zone of proximal development and highlights the value of social interaction in promoting language development.

A example of Bruner’s theory from my own personal experience is as follows: I have bathed my daughter daily, maintaining a similar bath time routine, since she was born over four years ago. When she was a baby interaction was based on ‘proto conversations’ or pre-verbal speech, which involved facial expressions, eye contact, playing with sounds etc. As she has matured, conversations have naturally progressed and the interaction is now characterised by ‘recasting’, ‘labelling’, ‘expanding’ and ‘echoing’.

As a result, she is now able to predict the bath time routine and can apply the appropriate language. This is particularly evident when my sister is looking after my daughter. She is able to direct my sister through the bath time scenario. For example, ‘mummy uses this shampoo’, ‘mummy puts lots of bubbles in’, ‘mummy puts the towel over the radiator’ etc.


Bernstein (1965) conducted in-depth research and found a link between a family’s socio-economic background and how restrictive or elaborate the language spoken was. This led him to believe that language believes thought (unlike Piaget) and in addition, the type of language that a child is exposed to has a significant influence on their overall cognitive development.

Bernstein conducted studies into the type of language used within working class families and discovered that they are more likely to use a more restrictive code of language that is short and repetitious and often limited to concrete rather than abstract thought. As a result, Bernstein claimed that children from working class families are at an immediate disadvantage, with restricted access to quality education and good jobs in later life. Middle class families, on the other hand, were found to use a more elaborate code of language which was extremely flexible and used both concrete and abstract thought. A high and sophisticated level of symbolisation was also evident. According to Bernstein, this use of language would possibly extend and expand on the child’s cognitive abilities, in direct contrast to children brought up in working class families, and would perhaps aid access into higher and further education along with employment with prospect.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, compensatory education programmes were established in both the UK and the USA. These were referred to as Head Start Programmes in the USA (aimed at poor children from ethnic minorities) and in the UK a number of research projects were developed under the supervision of sociologist Albert Halsey. The thinking behind these projects was that children seen to be growing up in an unstimulating environment would benefit from the education programmes as they would compensate for the poverty and social disadvantage of their lives.


Individuals with Down’s Syndrome may very significantly in terms of physical and psychological characteristics. The list of possible characteristics however, should not obscure the fact that they are people who have similar needs, desires and rights as others.

All areas of development may be delayed in a child with Down’s Syndrome. Poor muscle tone influences gross and fine motor development but this can be improved with physical therapy, a consistent, structured programme of physical activity and an ongoing weight maintenance plan. Likewise, language development is delayed due to muscle problems, small developed jaws and poorly developed noses making it difficult to articulate sound. However, language limitations can be alleviated via structured stimulation programmes and language therapy to improve skills.

Since mental retardation frequently occurs in children with Down’s Syndrome, higher integrative abilities such as the ability to think abstractly and to form concepts are likely to be affected. As a result, language development suffers. However, appropriate educational programmes have demonstrated impressive successes in teaching functional academic skills. Hearing loss and impairment is also common amongst children affected by Down’s Syndrome and as a result language acquisition and development is further delayed.

Some of the factors related to poverty that may place a child at risk of academic failure are: very young, single or low educational level parents; unemployment; abuse and neglect; substance abuse; dangerous neighbourhoods; homelessness; mobility and exposure to inadequate or inappropriate educational experiences. Academic and behavioural problems can be indicators of impending failure. Among such behaviours are a delay in language development, delay in reading development and irregular attendance at school. Children from poverty stricken backgrounds may be unwilling or unable to interact with peers and/or adults in school in an effective manner. This will have a negative impact on the child’s language development and can also impact on the learning of other children.

Poverty can make it very difficult for parents/carers to provide books and activities to stimulate a child’s interest in language and reading. For example, there may be no local library to visit, travel costs to and from the library may be too expensive, local parks and play areas (which encourage interaction with other children) may be unsafe and parents may have financial difficulties which will hinder opportunities to provide stimulating language experiences. Also, without appropriate language and communication skills, children will find it an impossible task to access and process information that is essential to learning, making it a vicious circle. Therefore, a child’s educational success is a risk.

·     AUTISM
Difficulties in areas of communication are the core of autism. Autism is a developmental disorder affecting social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Autistic children typically do not follow the usual patterns of childhood development and while most cases can be detected before the age of three, not all cases are diagnosed so early. Typically, parents first notice that their child does not interact, babble, talk or respond like other children, sometimes suspecting hearing problems before autism is diagnosed.
A child with autism is affected in his/her ability to understand language, to communicate, play and interact with others. The communication problems of autism vary depending on the intellectual and social development of the individual. Some may be unable to speak whereas others may have rich vocabularies and are unable to talk about topics of interest in great depth. Despite this variation, the majority of autistic children have little or no problem with pronunciation. Most have difficulty effectively using language. Many also have problems with words and sentence meaning, intonation and rhythm.

Most autistic individuals do not make eye contact and have poor attention duration. They are often unable to use gestures, either as a primary of communication, as in sign language, or to accompany verbal communication such as pointing to the object that they want. Some autistic individuals speak in a high-pitched voice or use robot-like speech. They are often unresponsive to the speech of others and may not respond to their own names. For many, speech and language develop, to some degree, but not to a normal ability level. The development is usually uneven.


·     model widely – naming objects, activities and feelings
·     avoid excessive questions – provide the child with information that you want he/she to know
·     provide enjoyable listening/language experiences
·     read stories appropriate to the child’s age and stage of development
·     use clear ‘adult’ word forms
·     respond to the child as he/she talks to you
·     expand on the child’s utterances
·     be honest when you are finding it difficult to understand the child to avoid frustration
·     providing building blocks to develop language skills
·     talk directly to children in a pleasant tone
·     talk about things here and now
·     use picture books with large, bright pictures of daily activities
·     use gestures or expressions to accompany language
·     provide praise and attention to appropriate use of language
·     take time to listen
·     do not expect perfection
·     do not draw attention to articulation errors
·     expose the child to short, simple nursery rhymes
·     use ‘circle time’ as a means to encourage children to express feelings
·     read poetry or books by Dr Zeus
·     Provide models and experiences to help children develop language


The issue of language and cognition has caused the teaching profession to consider different methodologies of developing language skills in pre-school and early years students. Among the approaches adopted are word recognition and phonetics. In the former, students are encouraged to associate words with pictorial and word images. With phonetic teaching children are encouraged to spell and create words through application of the letter sounds.

Children need to be exposed language media (e.g. books, story tapes etc.) from an early age. The more developed and expressive the media are the more enhanced and embellished are the images communicated to the child.

By relating and associating words with images or symbols children are developing an understanding of meaning. It also encourages categorisation/classification and the development of mental representations. In other words, relating language to symbols allows an internalisation of thought which, in time, will develop into abstract thought, i.e. the child will no longer require picture images or concrete objects to allow images to materialise. Their imagination, fuelled by the power of language, takes care of this.

Furthermore, language allows exploration of the world through questions and answers and encourages children to talk through problems; first ‘external’ then ‘internal’. Language is also a vital tool for planning, reporting, predicting, reasoning and problem solving.


Through the exchange of proto-conversations (pre-verbal speech) between baby and carer (e.g. facial expressions, eye contact. smiling, ‘motherese’ etc.) a strong bond will be established. Engaging in pre-verbal speech will help the baby to recognise his/her parent voice, which will promote feelings of trust and security. This interaction, in turn, will lead to a happy and content child.

As a child matures he/she will be able to express needs and desires through words and communication (both verbal and non-verbal). Successful communication realises benefit, which will promote confidence and self-esteem. Conversely, failure to communicate or limited communication may result in feelings of frustration.

Language also provides children with the opportunity to express their feelings. Talking about feelings is just as important as talking about ideas. If children bottle feelings inside and don’t vent, for example, anger, frustration, anxiety, fear etc. they will damage their confidence and self esteem. Children who fail to express themselves often display challenging behaviour.


In the first year of life, a baby through engaging in proto-conversations, will enjoy attention and being around others. It is at this stage, that they will become wary of strangers often displaying ‘stranger fear’. After 12 months, as children begin to express themselves verbally, they are able to understand and follow simple instructions, which can enable them to become socially competent. For example, learning how to feed themselves (initially with their fingers), cooperating when getting dressed etc. In time they will progress to be able to dress themselves and go to the toilet independent of any assistance. As children mature they develop a sense of identity using words like ‘I’ and ‘me’ and begin to develop relationships with their peers and other adults. Between the ages of four and eight children will have internalised the rules of their culture and are aware that languages other than English do exist. Finally, language assists children in understanding the various rules of society, for example, turn taking, sharing, negotiating etc.
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